Scientist search for spiny lobster killer

Marine scientist Donald Behringer
will be pulling the legs off 200 live lobsters to determine if a deadly virus
is present in Cayman’s population of Caribbean Spiny Lobsters.

Mr. Behringer is planning to
examine 100 lobsters in Grand Cayman and another 100 in Little Cayman when he
carries out his research into the virus, which is deadly for small, juvenile
lobsters, next month.

“The adult lobsters do not display
the same signs of the disease that the little ones do,” he said, which is why
he takes samples from the legs of lobsters to test in a lab.

The disease has been seen in a
number of locations throughout the Caribbean, but no checks have been done in
Cayman to determine if it is prevalent in the local lobster population.

Lobsters can regenerate their claws
and legs and can drop them as a defence mechanism. “Lobsters drop their legs
all the time,” the scientist said.

The blood of baby lobsters infected
with the virus turns milky white and the lobsters turn pink, almost the colour
of cooked lobsters, Mr. Behringer explained.

He plans to take the samples back
to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to test if the virus is present.

The cause of the virus is unknown
and it is believed that it can be spread in a variety of ways. The virus
appears to be lethal in juvenile lobsters. “We’ve never seen one recover,” Mr.
Behringer said.

However, the virus has also been
found in adult lobsters who have no symptoms and who seem to be able to live
with the virus. “We think the adults might be carriers,” he said. “That’s the
whole premise behind the study.”

While in Cayman, he will be taking
samples from adult lobsters to determine if they are infected by the virus.

He has been studying the disease in
the Florida Keys, and it has also been seen in the Virgin Islands, Belize,
Cuba, Mexico, St. Croix, and St. Kitts.

After his Cayman Islands studies,
he will gather samples from lobsters in Venezuela, Curaçoa, Tobago, Bahamas,
French Guiana and Bermuda.

Scientists are also trying to
determine why the virus is seen in so many diverse places. Lobsters migrate
long distances by walking along the sea floor, but the virus is being seen in
places that are too far for lobsters to walk to, leading scientists to
hypothesise that the virus is being spread through larvae that is carried on
currents around the Caribbean. Spiny lobsters have a larval period that lasts
from six to eight months.

Results of laboratory experiments
have shown that the virus, known as Panulirus argus virus I, or PaV1, can be
transmitted to juvenile lobsters via inoculation, ingestion of diseased tissue,
contact with diseased lobsters and, among the smallest juveniles, through water
over distances of several feet.

There is no evidence that the virus
can pass to humans who eat infected lobsters. “Firstly, you’d be thrown in jail
for catching and eating undersize lobsters,” said Mr. Behringer, “but it is
very unlikely that the virus would have any ill-effects. Viruses tend to be
very host-specific. Something that infects crustaceans is very unlikely to
infect humans.”

The chances of infection are also
reduced because lobsters are eaten cooked.

The scientist will arrive in Grand
Cayman on 10 October and work with the Department of Environment and then go to
Little Cayman to work with the Central Caribbean Marine Institute at the Little
Cayman Research Centre.

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Caribbean Spiny Lobsters are being threatened by a killer virus.
Photo: Kristi Feierstein
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